RELIGIOUS LIFE -
by Sister Mary Augustine O.P.
It is the Will of God that Religious Life should flourish in the Church.
The Church cannot conceive of Herself without the grace and the witness of this "Life of Perfection" as it is called, and She teaches clearly, constantly and consistently throughout the ages on the meaning, the characteristics and the mode of living of authentic religious life.
There are many Church documents giving this teaching, but the Post Vatican document which gathers it together in all its essential aspects is one entitled Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on the Religious Life, the content of which can be set out under the headings of
*THE MEANING, *THE MARKS and *THE METHODS of the Religious Life.
It contains truths which should be known and grasped by every serious Catholic - in particular by religious men and women. Indeed, it is to the impoverishment of their own religious lives and the life of the Church in general that so few religious communities seem to have studied and built their lives around the imperatives of this key document. The following is a digest of its teaching.
RELIGIOUS LIFE - WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
* The Religious Life is a life of total, life-long consecration to God It is the way of life which, above all ways of life on this earth, proclaims that GOD IS HOLY; GOD IS ALL.
* Consecration is the setting aside, by God, of something or someone for Himself alone.
* It is always His initative. It can happen only by His grace.
* Christ is the THE CONSECRATED ONE. All human consecrations - particularly that of Baptism, - are patterned on His and draw their power from His consecration as Son.
* Religious Consecration is rooted in Baptism - but it extends and fills out baptismal consecration.
* Religious Consecration, then, is a very holy thing. It is also free. God freely consecrates the persons He calls to religious life, but the person must also freely respond.
* The Church, too, is vital to this process. It acts as MEDIATOR between God and the person called. It receives and ratifies the vows of the consecrated one and assures them of the grace needed to live the life of holy consecration.
* Religious Consecration is an essential part of the LIFE AND HOLINESS of the Church.
It shows forth the unbreakable and eternal bondof love between Christ and His Bride, the Church.
There is nothing to come between the religious person and God. There is nothing held back from Him. It is a way of life that reflects the life of Heaven because it is a life of TOTAL, LOVING UNION WITH GOD.
* The Religious life is a most treasured possession of the Church. She guides it and guards it carefully because, like all precious treasures, it is easily lost or spoiled or broken.
* The Consecration of a religious, because it belongs to the Church as a whole is a PUBLIC thing. So religious must:
a. make VOWS IN PUBLIC according to the Church's conditions and laws.
b. give life-long PUBLIC WITNESS to Christ by imitating Him in His perfect Povery, Chastity and Obedience.
c. live their lives IN A COMMUNITY whose spirituality and life-style are approved and governed by the authority and laws of the Church.
d. give themselves totally to the PUBLIC WORK of the Church.
e. be a PUBLIC HOLY PRESENCE, witnessing to the Kingdom of Heaven by their unworldly way of acting, dressing and living.
HOW CAN WE RECOGNIZE AUTHENTIC RELIGIOUS LIFE?
WHAT ARE ITS DISTINGUISHING MARKS?
According to the Church, religious life is not truly lived without the following:
V O W S.
* The most important mark of the consecrated religious is that they make three public vows - POVERTY, CHASTITY AND OBEDIENCE.
* In doing this they renounce the greatest goods of this world - POSSESSIONS, THE BONDS OF HUMAN LOVE and PERSONAL AUTONOMY. They do this in the closest imitation of Christ.
* The characteristics of RELIGIOUS POVERTY are:
a. that it is freely chosen
b. that the religious gives up all ownership of property,
c. that the religious lives a simple, sharing material life-style, dependent on the community for everything.
* The characteristics of RELIGIOUS CHASTITY are
a. that the religious has a full and genuine love for God and for all people for His sake.
b. that the religious gives up all ways of behaving and relating to others which would stand in the way of his/her total and chaste self-giving to God.
* The characteristics of RELIGIOUS OBEDIENCE are
a. that the religious obeys the directives of lawful superiors, thereby obeying God.
b. That the religious is obedient to the Holy Father who is the first superior of all religious.
C O M M U N I T Y L I F E:
* By consecration a religious is bound to God and also to a religious community.
* Members of a religious community are called to share a COMMON LIFE:
a. SPIRITUALLY - by sharing together friendship and the special family spirit and spirituality of the community.
b.MATERIALLY - by pooling their resources and depending on the community for all their needs.
c.APOSTOLICALLY - by contributing to the work of Christ through the traditional apostolate of the community.
* Unity in community life is a clear witness to the presence of Christ and the power of His grace.
S A C R E D M I S S I O N:
* God does not consecrate a religious to be merely passive, but for a particular HOLY MISSION.
* This mission is not the personal possession of the individual religious but one entrusted to the community by the Church
* Each community was founded for a particular mission and this cannot be changed in any basic way without the community losing its reason for existence.
* The work of a religious is always done in religious obedience.
* The MAIN APOSTOLATE for all religious is their life of prayer asceticism and witness. They are apostolic not because they have an 'apostolate " but because they are living as the apostles lived.
P R A Y E R:
* Religious consecration cannot be lived without prayer. In prayer, the religious concentrates his/her heart on God, coming to know and love Him more and more deeply.
* Every religious must pray INDIVIDUALLY, COMMUNALLY and LITURGICALLY.
* Religious need to pray:
a. To DEEPEN their personal union with God.
b. To PREPARE themselves to proclaim the Gospel.
c. To RECEIVE the grace to live their religious vows at each moment of their life..
* The most important form of prayer for the religious is CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER which can only be done in conditions of PROLONGED SILENCE, ADORATION and REVERENT LISTENING before God. Through this contemplative prayer one lives in awareness of the presence of God and sees everything in the light of Faith.
* By their consecration religious enter into Christ's way of suffering.
* Asceticism, penance and self-denial are, then a necessary part of religious life.
* The VOWS are the central source of asceticism. They call for the leaving of all things, and the choosing of the Cross to follow Christ throughout the whole of one's life. They are proof of the HIGHEST FORM OF LOVE..
* The asceticism of sacrificial self-giving is necessary for life in community.
* The MISSION of a religious cannot be fruitful without this sacrificial love.
* It is also necessary for the unique witness given by religious that "Here we have no lasting city"; that the Kingdom of God transcends both the joys and hardships of this world.
P U B L I C W I T N E S S:
* One of the chief purposes for religious life is to give witness to the LOVE, HOLINESS and ABSOLUTE PRIMACY of God.
* They must witness from their experience of God, and they must do so not only by their WORDS, but by their LIVES. What they are counts for more than what they do!
* The witness of religious involves the whole of life- their VALUES, their ATTITUDES, their BEHAVIOUR, their DRESS, their RECREATION and THEIR USE OF THE THINGS OF THIS WORLD.
* If religious are to give authentic witness:
a. They must wear a RELIGIOUS GARB..
b. They must live in a RELIGIOUS HOUSE.
c. Their travel and social life must be governed by the rule of the community and by their superiors.
d. They must work in a spirit of OBEDIENCE AND HUMBLE SERVICE; not merely for self-fulfilment and self-satisfaction.
e. They must imitate Christ and become one with the poor by their OBEDIENCE and SELF-CHOSEN DEPENDENCE.
f. Their apostolic work should SHOW SPECIAL CARE for THE POOR AND SUFFERING.
* The power of their witness comes from their loyalty and obedience to the CHURCH.
*. Their faithful PERSEVERANCE is a witness to the faithfulness and endless love of God.
R E L A T I O N S H I P TO THE C H U R C H:
* The Religious Life is not something half-way between the hierarchy and the laity, but a way of life which may draw from both. It stands alone as a SPECIAL GIFT OF GRACE for the Church.
* It is an outward sign of God's consecration of all His creation.
* Religious Life cananot exist without the Church which:
a. ACCEPTS AND APPROVES the special gifts of the founders of religious communities.
b. gives APPROVAL to the way of life and laws of each religious community.
c. RECEIVES the vows and mediates God's consecration of each religious.
d. SHARES her mission with each religious community.
e. MEDIATES the GRACE a religious community needs for its life of witness.
f. GUIDES, CORRECTS and ENCOURAGES religious communities so that they remain faithful to their original holy calling.
R E L I G I O U S F O R M A T I O N :
* The religious is not just called and consecrated once. The call of God and the consecration by Him continues throughout life, growing and developing in mysterious ways.
* All through his/her life the religious is being formed so that he/she becomes more likfe Christ; sharing His mind, His way of loving and serving and His total gift of Himself to His Father.
* This means, for each religious, a constant, genuine CONVERSION. He/she must concentrate on putting off all selfishness and self-gratification in order to "put on Jesus Christ."
* The vows of a religious, if they are lived faithfully and well do not harm the personality of the religious but help it to flower into true holiness.
* Each religious community has its own special features that help each member to grow in knowledge of God and relationship with Him through prayer. The support of the community helps each religious to stay faithful to his/her vows and consecration to God.
* The Church guides religious by teaching and setting out laws which will help make them true LIKENESSES of CHRIST.
* God is the One who really forms the religious person. He acts through HIS WORD, THE SACRAMENTS, THE PRAYER OF THE LITURGY, ,THE MAGISTERIUM OF THE CHURCH and through SUPERIORS AND THOSE APPOINTED BY THE CHURCH TO HELP THE FORMATION OF THEIR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.
His grace is absolutely essential for the living of the consecrated life.
G O V E R N M E N T:
* Religious communities must have a form of government which has Christ as the supreme authority. This authority is given, by the Church, to the religious superiors who hold it and exercise it in Christ's name.
* In obeying their superiors, religious obey God.
* Religious superiors are there to serve their brothers and sisters and to serve the Church. They do this by :
a. showing CARE and REVERENCE for each member of the community,
b. HELPING everyone in the community to be FAITHFUL to their.religious consecration.
c. MAKING DECISIONS about what is to be done for the good of the community
d. INTERPRETING THE WILL OF GOD for the members of the community.
* Each member of the religious community is responsible for the building of a strong, loving, united community life. Superiors should consult with the sisters/brothers before making decisions about the community's life and work.
M A R Y A S M O T H E R A N D M O D E L:
* Religious life understands itself most deeply in CONTEMPLATING and IMITATING Mary, Mother of God.
* The values of the religious life are reflections of those same values in Mary.
* She is the Mother of Religious because she is the mother of Christ, spouse of all religious.
* Religious imitate Mary in her adoration of God and in her total, loving surrender to Him.
HOW ARE RELIGIOUS MEANT TO LIVE?
WHAT ARE THE METHODS OF DECIDING?
* Religious are guided in their lives by laws which express for them the Will of God.
* Some of these laws are found in the Church's Code of Canon Law.
* They are also called to obey the particular Rule of their community which expresses the special religious spirit of the community and must be formally approved by the Church.
The document ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS gives a list of the most important Canons for religious. Because of their nature it is not appropriate to summarise or paraphrase these. They do, however, set up practical structures for religious that express the true MEANING of religious life and guarantee its true MARKS or characteristics. Through them we can see the Church watching carefully over the safety and sanctity of THE LIFE OF PERFECTION which God has entrusted to Her and which She always holds in the greatest honour and love.